Among the many challenges that will greet President-elect Obama when he takes office, there are few, if any, more urgent and complex than the question of Iran. There are also few issues more clouded by myths and misconceptions. In this Joint Experts' Statement on Iran, a group of top scholars, experts and diplomats - with years of experience studying and dealing with Iran - have come together to clear away some of the myths that have driven the failed policies of the past and to outline a factually-grounded, five-step strategy for dealing successfully with Iran in the future.
Joint Experts' Statement on Iran
American Foreign Policy Project
by Ali Banuazizi, Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Juan R.I. Cole, Ambassador James F. Dobbins, Rola el-Husseini, Farideh Farhi, Geoffrey E. Forden, Hadi Ghaemi, Philip Giraldi, Farhad Kazemi, Stephen Kinzer, Ambassador William G. Miller, Emile A. Nakhleh, Augustus Richard Norton, Richard Parker, Trita Parsi, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Barnett R. Rubin, Gary G. Sick, John Tirman, James Walsh
Despite recent glimmers of diplomacy, the United States and Iran remain locked in a cycle of threats and defiance that destabilizes the Middle East and weakens U.S. national security.
Today, Iran and the United States are unable to coordinate campaigns against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, their common enemies. Iran is either withholding help or acting to thwart U.S. interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Gaza. Within Iran, a looming sense of external threat has empowered hard-liners and given them both motive and pretext to curb civil liberties and further restrict democracy. On the nuclear front, Iran continues to enrich uranium in spite of binding U.N. resolutions, backed by economic sanctions, calling for it to suspend enrichment.
U.S. efforts to manage Iran through isolation, threats and sanctions have been tried intermittently for more than two decades. In that time they have not solved any major problem in U.S.-Iran relations, and have made most of them worse. Faced with the manifest failure of past efforts to isolate or economically coerce Iran, some now advocate escalation of sanctions or even military attack. But dispassionate analysis shows that an attack would almost certainly backfire, wasting lives, fomenting extremism and damaging the long-term security interests of both the U.S and Israel. And long experience has shown that prospects for successfully coercing Iran through achievable economic sanctions are remote at best.
Fortunately, we are not forced to choose between a coercive strategy that has clearly failed and a military option that has very little chance of success. There is another way, one far more likely to succeed: Open the door to direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations at the senior diplomatic level where personal contacts can be developed, intentions tested, and possibilities explored on both sides. Adopt policies to facilitate unofficial contacts between scholars, professionals, religious leaders, lawmakers and ordinary citizens. Paradoxical as it may seem amid all the heated media rhetoric, sustained engagement is far more likely to strengthen United States national security at this stage than either escalation to war or continued efforts to threaten, intimidate or coerce Iran.
Here are five key steps the United States should take to implement an effective diplomatic strategy with Iran:
1. Replace calls for regime change with a long-term strategy
Threats are not cowing Iran and the current regime in Tehran is not in imminent peril. But few leaders will negotiate in good faith with a government they think is trying to subvert them, and that perception may well be the single greatest barrier under U.S. control to meaningful dialogue with Iran. The United States needs to stop the provocations and take a long-term view with this regime, as it did with the Soviet Union and China. We might begin by facilitating broad-ranging people-to-people contacts, opening a U.S. interest section in Tehran, and promoting cultural exchanges.
2. Support human rights through effective, international means
While the United States is rightly concerned with Iran's worsening record of human rights violations, the best way to address that concern is through supporting recognized international efforts. Iranian human rights and democracy advocates confirm that American political interference masquerading as "democracy promotion" is harming, not helping, the cause of democracy in Iran.
3. Allow Iran a place at the table - alongside other key states - in shaping the future of Iraq, Afghanistan and the region.
This was the recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group with regard to Iraq. It may be counter-intuitive in today's political climate - but it is sound policy. Iran has a long-term interest in the stability of its neighbors. Moreover, the United States and Iran support the same government in Iraq and face common enemies (the Taliban and al-Qaeda) in Afghanistan. Iran has shown it can be a valuable ally when included as a partner, and a troublesome thorn when not. Offering Iran a place at the table cannot assure cooperation, but it will greatly increase the likelihood of cooperation by giving Iran something it highly values that it can lose by non-cooperation. The United States might start by appointing a special envoy with broad authority to deal comprehensively and constructively with Iran (as opposed to trading accusations) and explore its willingness to work with the United States on issues of common concern.
4. Address the nuclear issue within the context of a broader U.S.-Iran opening
Nothing is gained by imposing peremptory preconditions on dialogue. The United States should take an active leadership role in ongoing multilateral talks to resolve the nuclear impasse in the context of wide-ranging dialogue with Iran. Negotiators should give the nuclear talks a reasonable deadline, and retain the threat of tougher sanctions if negotiations fail. They should also, however, offer the credible prospect of security assurances and specific, tangible benefits such as the easing of U.S. sanctions in response to positive policy shifts in Iran. Active U.S. involvement may not cure all, but it certainly will change the equation, particularly if it is part of a broader opening.
5. Re-energize the Arab-Israeli peace process and act as an honest broker in that process
Israel's security lies in making peace with its neighbors. Any U.S. moves towards mediating the Arab-Israeli crisis in a balanced way would ease tensions in the region, and would be positively received as a step forward for peace. As a practical matter, however, experience has shown that any long-term solution to Israel's problems with the Palestinians and Lebanon probably will require dealing, directly or indirectly, with Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran supports these organizations, and thus has influence with them. If properly managed, a U.S. rapprochement with Iran, even an opening of talks, could help in dealing with Arab-Israeli issues, benefiting Israel as well as its neighbors.
Long-standing diplomatic practice makes clear that talking directly to a foreign government in no way signals approval of the government, its policies or its actions. Indeed, there are numerous instances in our history when clear-eyed U.S. diplomacy with regimes we deemed objectionable - e.g., Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Libya and Iran itself (cooperating in Afghanistan to topple the Taliban after 9/11) - produced positive results in difficult situations.
After many years of mutual hostility, no one should expect that engaging Iran will be easy. It may prove impossible. But past policies have not worked, and what has been largely missing from U.S. policy for most of the past three decades is a sustained commitment to real diplomacy with Iran. The time has come to see what true diplomacy can accomplish.
For Reading "Annex: Basic Misconceptions about Iran", click here